The American youth has an obsession with celebrities. That fact has inundated our culture for generations. From early childhood, we are bombarded by celebrity images from a media environment heavily saturated with celebrity idolization.
For the purpose of this post, a celebrity is a person who is known as an actor, actress, comedian, singer, musician, talk show host or athlete (Regan). Celebrities excel and receive wide exposure in the domains of entertainment, sport and music.
I want to address how celebrities excel and can influence first-time voters in the domain of politics. But first, I wanted to introduce a brief overview of the culture of celebrity idolization and how it influences adolescents.
A study done by Raviv, Bar-Tal, Raviv and Ben-Horin examined adolescents’ idolization of pop singers. Idolization encompasses two components: worship and modeling. Worship refers to an intense admiration or reverence for the celebrity. Modeling refers to the desire to imitate the celebrity in order to be like them.
They compared the intensity of idolization between males and females of three age groups (10-11, 13-14 and 16-17). Some variables they investigated included behavioral manifestations of idolization, causes for choosing the idol and reliance for knowledge on the idol.
Their results indicated that the phenomenon of idolization is most evident in the youngest age group and decreases in intensity with age. By age 16-17, idolization is rare, most likely because they have achieved autonomy and have shaped a more secure sense of identity. It was also found that idolization is more prevalent in girls than in boys. The authors speculated that adolescents look to celebrities as identification figures other than their parents in a time of discovering self-identity and independence. Idolization of a celebrity can also begin due to peer group influence, which girls are more susceptible to.
Overall, these results show that first-time voters (18-24) should be less susceptible to celebrity influence. This age group represents about 9 percent of all eligible voters in America, yet on average less than 50 percent of them vote.
Studies show that a combination of lack of political knowledge and candidate loyalty makes first time voters valuable swing voters (Rosenberg) and fairly susceptible to personal influence (Burton, Scott and Netemeyer). Therefore, the potential for opinion leaders such as celebrities to shape public opinion is great.
Do young adults listen to and trust the information they receive from celebrities? Much research has been done to investigate the extent to which celebrities influence first-time voters as well as whether celebrity activism and endorsements are effective in garnering the youth vote.
Maurstad showed that celebrities have been shown to bring money and visibility to campaigns. Their involvement can reinvigorate waning media attention. In addition, celebrity support can make a conservative or outdated candidate seem more “hip.”
Wood and Herbst found that family members and significant others are more likely to influence first-time voters than celebrities are. They discovered that the celebrity’s perceived credibility was also an important factor. Many respondents were unwilling to acknowledge that celebrities influenced their decision-making. Wood and Herbst’s conclusion was similar to Maurstad’s; the strength of celebrities is mainly that they bring visibility and financial support to campaigns.
Regan performed a more in-depth study examining the influence of celebrity opinions and endorsements on the political attitudes of young adults. Additional variables in her study included ethnicity and gender. She found that most young adults do not believe that celebrities are any more knowledgeable about politics than the average citizen. But they also believe that the average citizen is more likely to listen to a celebrity than a politician, academic, expert or scientist. She concluded that celebrity endorsements do not affect young adults’ perceptions of political candidates or influence how they vote.
It appears that although celebrities are good at getting the public’s attention and are useful in commercial advertising, their endorsements of political candidates don’t have much of an affect on first-time voters.
Nonetheless, more research should be done to investigate this issue. It was shown that not many people were willing to admit to a celebrity’s influence so perhaps they may influence us after all.
Burton, Scott and Netemeyer, Richard G. 1992. The effect of enduring, situational, and
response involvement on preference stability in the context of voting behavior. Psychology & Marketing (1986-1998), 9(2), 143-157.
Maurstad, Tom. From Hollywood to Washington: Blurring the boundaries between
politic and pop culture, February 6, 2004, http://web.lexis-nexis.com
Rosenberg, Yuval. 2004. Lost Youth. American Demographics, 26(2), 17-19.
Wood, Natalie T. and Kenneth C. Herbst. 2007. Political Star Power and Political Parties: Does Celebrity Endorsement Win First-Time Votes. Journal of Political Marketing, 6(2/3), 141-158.